High style for centuries-old houses


Lyme, Conn. There's nothing old-fashioned about the old houses Skip Broom and Bill Oberg are reviving in a new subdivision here.

While the development is new -- two houses complete, one under way -- the structures are quite old. In fact, they date back to the 18th century.

The two partners in Sterling City Properties are rescuing endangered antique houses and giving them new life in a very upscale environment of 2- to 3-acre lots, hand-built stone fences, avenues of sugar maples and a tidal creek with resident swans.

In the process, they're proving that high style embraces all centuries.

"We're not purists," Bill Oberg says, and indeed the houses they build are hybrids, with the best of the old structure carefully rebuilt and restored and new construction that embraces all the joys of the 20th century -- kitchens with space for entertaining, whirlpool tubs, giant closets, wine cellars, computer-controlled automatic lawn sprinkler systems, built-in vacuum systems, sun spaces, air conditioning.

"People really don't want to live in museums," Mr. Oberg says. "They want light, they want room. People love old houses, they just don't want the inconveniences of old houses."

What holds the centuries together is master carpentry and a meticulous, almost fanatic, attention to detail.

P. "Skip" Broom has operated as a New England housewright fo17 years, specializing in restoration. Bill Oberg, a financial consultant turned developer, has wanted to restore old houses all his life. The two happened to meet, realized they shared the same passion, and joined forces to build a 12-lot "subdivision" of old houses on 30-odd acres.

All did not go as smoothly as China silk. The watchful inhabitants of this exclusive part of Connecticut, where zoning restrictions have kept the population density about that of SaudiArabia, reacted at first as if "we were putting in a trailer park," Bill Oberg says with a laugh.

Their first house, a 1753 tavern they found in Salem, Conn., had a tree growing through the keeping room wall, and no floor to speak of. Bill saw the house first and almost hesitated to show it to Skip. There was no light, the place was packed with trash, the walls were falling in and snow was drifting everywhere. "I love this house," Skip said. They were in business.

The techniques they used to mesh old and new construction left some local building inspectors dazed and led to design changes. For instance, local codes demand staircases of a certain width. They compromised by leaving the original center stairs in one house and adding a new staircase in the addition. Codes also prevented them from using some of the houses' original hearths: They didn't extend the requisite 40 inches from the back of the fireplace. They replaced the originals with similar, wider, stones.

Whatever problem they encounter, they try to look at from an 18th century viewpoint. One of their most successful ventures in melding old values and new construction is the garage behind the high-style, circa-1800 Colonel Flynn House. They wanted a carriage house of Colonial proportions -- that is, no more than 14 feet deep. However, modern vehicles need about 21 feet of garage space.

They struggled for weeks to come up with a design, drawing o the backs of napkins, rejecting plan after plan. Then they hit on a magical solution: Build the carriage house against an earth bank. Make the main part 14 feet deep, but extend as hallower structure into the bank, where it's invisible, to accommodate the cars and boats of the current century.

That approach -- taking a modern problem and creatively fitting it into an 18th century aesthetic -- is typical of the Sterling City partners. Some of their other "signature" items are:

*"Keeping room" kitchens with huge hearths and "furniture-style cabinets" that pick up carpentry and trim details from mantels and moldings.

*Extensive use of old wood, of ten but not always original to the house, in floors, paneling, cabinets.

*Basement doors concealed with wood cabinetry that resembles old-fashioned jelly cabinet, or shallow storage space.

*Custom wood interior storm windows that slip in and out of the frames with simple toggles. The storms are invisible from outside and easily replaced in summer with special bottom-sash screens.

*Elaborately finished and extremely up-to-date walkout basements, typically incorporating huge cedar-lined storage closets, wine cellar spaces, and entertainment areas.

*Hand-finished plaster with a slightly uneven surface texture to approximate an 18th century finish. This finish was used throughout the house, even in the "modern" basement areas.

*Extensive use of elaborate moldings, with styles picked up from the older parts of the house and carried throughout.

*Recycling of old outbuildings as garage spaces. Old exterior surfaces are maintained; even automatic doors are faced with vintage board siding.

*Modern mud room entrances separated from older living areas by an antique tavern door with glass panes at the top.

Although Mr. Broom and Mr. Oberg have renovated just three houses together so far, their work is a sourcebook of clever design solutions for anyone trying to mesh centuries in renovation.

Next: Thinking about design considerations.

Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.

If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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